Synthesis of a family of proteins called "heat shock" proteins is enhanced in cells in response to a wide variety of environmental stresses. This suggests that these proteins may have functions essential to cell survival under stressful conditions. A causative relationship between heat shock protein synthesis and development of thermotolerance would imply that agents known to induce heat shock protein synthesis, such as sodium arsenite, also induce thermotolerance. Conversely, agents known to induce thermotolerance, such as ethanol, would also enhance heat shock protein synthesis. To test this hypothesis, I have examined the effect of sodium arsenite or ethanol treatment on protein synthesis and cell survival in Chinese hamster ovary HA-1 cells. After either sodium arsenite or ethanol treatment, the synthesis of heat shock proteins was greatly enhanced over that of untreated cells. In parallel, cell survival was increased as much as 10(4)-fold when cells exposed to either agent were challenged by a subsequent heat treatment. The synthesis of heat shock proteins correlated well with the development of thermotolerance. A qualitative analysis of individual proteins suggests that the synthesis of 70,000 and 87,000 molecular weight proteins most closely mirrored the development of thermotolerance. The results, therefore, strongly reinforce the hypothesis that a causal relationship exists between the enhanced synthesis of heat shock protein and cell survival under specific stresses.